Joe Allen draws a blank

ALAN FRAME laments the eviction of his favourite London restaurant

joe allen

What, I wonder, would the late great Terry Evans make of it? He certainly wouldn’t approve, that’s for sure.

His second home, Joe Allen, has been forced to find a new venue after 40 years in its Exeter Street, Covent Garden basement, thanks to a successful bid by Robert De Niro to turn the building housing Joe’s into the Wellington Hotel, the latest boutique joint for the West End.

Like everything, we will all get used to it, but for now it seems inconceivable that London’s only real New York diner will in future not be quite the same. As one who has been a regular since it opened, modelled exactly on the original of the same name on West 46th Street, the place (crammed with theatre posters and black and white photographs of the stars, the long bar, TV at one end showing continuous movies from the Thirties, the brick walls and the open kitchen) has been a magical setting for so many of us.

And the fact that it opens all day made it a firm favourite with Fleet Street as much as it did with actors and their ilk. We could drink there when the pubs were closed and if you asked for ‘some blanks’ the lovely staff would oblige. These blanks, you may remember, were the small pieces of thin cardboard on which Joe’s would fill in the bill total in pencil. Well, I ask you – in pencil? It hardly needed a hardened criminal mind to work out that half a dozen blanks filled in by even the least imaginative of expenses claimants could add considerably to one’s income. Even placing a nought at the end of the total would reap its reward though discretion was advised. It was all right if the bill was, say, for drinks only and came to £17 but not if the original total was £80. You would be hard pressed to spend £800 at Joe’s even if entertaining the Band of the Coldstream Guards. There were other tricks: a one became a seven and a three was transformed into an eight. And so on.

But one had to be a little cautious or at least sensible. The only thing printed on those small pieces of cardboard was a serial number so a handful of blanks, if from the same batch, would show consecutive numbers. Alas, one of our colleagues was foolish enough to put in Joe Allen bills, one a week, for six weeks of exes claims. Not surprisingly the miscreant was summoned by that nice Mr Coupar who began the interview by commiserating that custom at Joe’s had fallen off so alarmingly. ‘No it hasn’t’, came the reply only for the managing editor to point out that for six weeks this person had been the only customer of the normally packed restaurant. She left the Express not long afterwards.

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Joe’s was where I was first introduced to the delights of a Perfect Manhattan on a little mound of crushed ice. Thank you Geoffrey Compton! In the early days, just as now, many of the waiting staff were drama students, extras and ‘resting’ actors and fabulous they are. I have been served by Graham Norton – but not in that way dear…

And while one hardly blinks when the famous of Luvvieland are dining there, I do remember feeling very sad to see the late Robert Stephens, after his marriage to Maggie Smith and before his knighthood, sitting alone at the table next to us one Sunday, much the worse for wear. 

As a proud member of the World’s Greatest Lunch Club, which celebrates its 10th anniversary next June, the move will be a wrench because Joe’s has been our venue on every occasion except one. It will be strange to leave our own table (near the bar it has to be said) where we even have a photograph of us at play hanging on the adjacent wall, brass plaque and all.

But the delicious Cathy Winn, ever cheerful and efficient manager of the restaurant tells me: “It’ll take more than a wannabe film icon to stop us. We will relocate dramatically darling, I’m booking you in to carry your table to an appropriate nook. Meanwhile it’s business as usual.”

I started this by mentioning our very much missed chum Terry Evans. He ate there more than any of us and of course was a distinguished member of the WGLC. When he finally retired as picture editor of the Sunday Express he held his farewell do, needless to say, at Joe’s. And when he left us far too soon, we had an excellent and very long memorial lunch at his favourite restaurant.

Next time you are there, go to the back of the main dining area and you will find a plaque, marking his (or rather his employer’s) great generosity over the years and inscribed simply ‘Sir Terry Evans’.

I think we can be sure that Cathy will see to it that this small tribute to a great man will be on the wall of Joe’s new berth.


 

© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre